Canon EOS 50D Overview
by Shawn Barnett, Dave Etchells, Mike Tomkins, Zig Weidelich, and Andrew Alexander
Hands-On Preview: 09/03/08
Full Review: 11/03/08
Canon broke with its tradition of upgrading the line every 18 months, introducing the EOS 50D just 12 months from the introduction of the 40D. The move has helped Canon catch up with the Nikon D300, which made quite a splash in the market. With the same rugged, conservative body as the 40D, the Canon EOS 50D's only distinguishing mark is the silver bezel on its mode dial. There are a few minor changes to how the buttons and controls are used, but for the most part the Canon 50D's body is unchanged.
It's inside where you'll find the Canon 50D's major changes. First is the new 15.1-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, a significant upgrade from the 40D's 10-megapixel sensor. Major changes to the design of the microlens array as well as to the sensor itself have actually reduced sensor noise despite the increase in resolution. The change has allowed Canon to offer a wider range of ISO settings than the company has ever offered, ranging from ISO 100 to 3,200, plus two higher settings: H1 is equivalent to ISO 6,400 and H2 takes the camera to 12,800.
Canon's new DIGIC 4 processor is a part of the equation, moving the extra data at a faster pace than its predecessor, and keeping the camera to a high 6.3 frames per second while maintaining that 14-bit data for RAW images (this is a slight speed drop from the 40D's 6.5 fps).
The Canon 50D also has a new look to its menu, and a Quick Control system works off the previously neglected Multi-controller, making quick changes to commonly used functions easier to execute. Other software enhancements include a new vignetting correction, Automatic Lighting Optimizer with three levels, adjustable noise reduction, a Creative Auto mode, a lens micro adjustment function, and face detection autofocus in Live View mode.
Finally, the Canon EOS 50D has a much improved LCD screen that offers 920,000-dot resolution, making for a 640x480 screen, finally putting the 50D on par with some of its major competitors.
The Canon EOS 50D digital SLR retails for $1,399 body-only. A kit version including a 28 - 135mm zoom lens is also available, priced at $1,599, as well as a kit containing the new 18-200mm zoom lens, retailing for $2,099.99. The Canon 50D will accept virtually all EOS 40D accessories, including the battery grip, remote control, optional focusing screens, and battery.
Canon EOS 50D Review and User Report
by Shawn Barnett
The jump from the Canon 20D to 30D was similar to this transition from 40D to 50D, with most of the changes made internally. This time, though, those internal changes are more significant, helping the Canon 50D better compete against the current crop of 12 to 14-megapixel digital SLRs, including Canon's own consumer model, the 12.1-megapixel Rebel XSi (450D). In both cases, the 50D's resolution exceeds the norm for this level of camera, while the 40D's 10.1-megapixel resolution didn't exceed any of the market leaders at the time, nor did it hold up for long against the Canon XSi's 12.2 megapixels, introduced earlier this year.
We've never held that megapixels were as important as noise handling and high-ISO performance, though, so we're excited that the 50D's 15.1 megapixels also includes excellent high-ISO performance. Other interface improvements are also welcome, including a Quick Control screen, as well as several feature enhancements, like face detection in Live View mode, and contrast-detect autofocus in Live View, all making the already great EOS 40D even better.
Look and feel. The Canon EOS 50D weighs just a little less than the 40D, coming in at 1.81 pounds (822 grams) compared to the 40D's 1.86 pounds (844g), both with battery and card. Add the 18-135mm lens and weight is 3 pounds (1,375g), and with the 18-200, it's 3.16 pounds (1,436g). Dimensions are identical, at 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 inches (145.5 x 107.8 x 73.5mm), so if you're familiar with the 40D, you'll feel right at home with the Canon 50D.
The Canon EOS 50D's body is magnesium alloy, with slightly improved seals against dust and water. Seals protect connection ports, the battery compartment, and the compact flash door. The frame is stainless steel, and the mirror box is high-strength engineering plastic. Holding the Canon 50D is like gripping a well-sculpted rock: solid, with no twisting or creaking. The EF lens mount is metal, compatible with all Canon EOS EF and EF-S lenses.
The grip has a good-sized indent for the middle finger, as we've enjoyed on the EOS 5D, 40D and other recent SLRs we've handled. The indent on the 50D is a little broader than the 5D, and a lot bigger than the 1D-series. Regardless of size, this divot improves control and comfort, and better centers the hand for the right grip every time.
To remind you which camera you're holding, just look for the silver bezel on the mode dial on the EOS 50D's left shoulder (the 40D's bezel is black). The Canon 50D's new Mode dial bezel seemed like a minor change at first, but I find it helps read the dial more quickly, both indoors and out. The Print/Share button has been given real purpose when shooting, as it activates Live View mode. On the 40D, you had to press the SET button, which caused a lot of confusion, and took away the SET button's usual utility while in Live View mode. Below the LCD, the Jump button has disappeared, and the Info and Picture Styles buttons have moved left to make room for the FUNC. button. (Jump is now done with the Main Dial on the top deck, with the type of jump preset via a playback menu item.)
The Canon 50D's Multi-controller isn't new, but is now in charge of activating and navigating the Quick Control menu system that turns the new Status display into a simple graphical menu system. Ironically, the Quick Control dial doesn't activate the Quick Control system, but it does play a part. Press the center of the Multi-controller to activate the menu, then toggle around on the screen until you reach the setting you want to change. Then either press in on the Multi-controller to bring up the full array of options for that screen, or just turn the Quick Control or Main Dial to cycle through the available options without leaving the Quick Control menu.
Little else is new about the Canon 50D's control array. It's a very good design, with an excellent textured thumbgrip, a very good grip up front, and most controls are very easy to access. I'm not crazy about the Live View button's location on the left of the optical viewfinder, but it's at least in an area that you'll get used to accessing, since the Menu button is just to the left.
50D vs. 40D. A quick look at the Canon 50D and 40D side-by-side shows just how alike they are. The difference is only a change to the painted icons for a few buttons. Note the very different, blue reflection coming off the Canon 50D's screen, which is multi-coated to minimize glare, reduce smudges, and guard against scratches. Also carried over is the rubber seal around the flash hot shoe, made to mate with the 580EX II flash to keep water out of this normally unprotected electrical connection.
50D vs Rebel XSi. The Canon 50D is larger than the Canon Rebel XSi, and for the first time it's also quite a bit more capable in all areas, not just more durable than Canon's top-selling consumer model.
Displays. The Canon 50D still has its top-deck Status display, and while it looks almost identical to the 40D's display, a few icons have moved around, one's been added, and they've added an almost five-digit ISO display to handle the new high setting (leaving no room for a future 25,600 setting without another redesign, since the left-most digit only allows for display of the number 1). The added icon is the D+ icon, to indicate when Highlight tone priority is active. The Custom Function icon no longer appears on the Status display. Since it was fairly non-specific, merely saying that one of the Custom functions had been changed from the default, it's not a great loss.
The new rear Status display, meanwhile, allows adjustment of settings, as described above. Overall the display is more modern and attractive than Canon's previous displays.
LCD. Canon's new LCD may be smoother than the other 920,000-pixel displays on the Sony and Nikon cameras; then again, my close vision isn't what it used to be, so for now we'll just call it an impression based on the fact that I can't see any jaggy edges on any displayed curve.
With a 160-degree viewing angle, the Canon 50D's LCD has quite an array of coatings designed to reduce internal and external reflections, for a crisper image in all lighting situations. It's also coated to resist fingerprints, dirt, and scratches. I'm not sure how a scratch-resistant layer residing under two other layers will prevent those layers from scratching, but time will tell whether it works. So far, our production sample has no scratches after weeks of use.
Canon 50D Live View
Live View mode grows up a bit with the Canon 50D, offering two grid modes, more informational icons, focus confirmation in Quick mode, and a new face-detect mode.
Most importantly, the new features make the Canon 50D's Live View work more like experienced digicam users will expect, though it's still slower than most digicams on the market at focusing, regardless of focus mode. Experienced users will know to expect this from the mode, and use it only when nothing else will do, as when shooting off-angle, or while carefully composing and focusing on a tripod.
Quick mode. The first Live View focusing mode uses the traditional SLR method of flipping the mirror back down to use the phase detect autofocus sensors for focusing. This can indeed be quicker so long as you put one of the nine AF points over an area with good contrast that enables fast focusing. New to the system is that the selected AF points light up after the mirror flips back up to tell you which areas are in focus, rather than leaving that to guesswork as the Rebel XSi does. Autofocus in this mode is quite a bit slower than with the optical viewfinder, but faster than Live mode. Because you have to press the AF-ON button as a primary step before you press the shutter button, the fastest time we could get was 0.85 second.
Live mode. Contrast-detect mode is called Live mode, because the Canon 50D does its focusing with the data that comes live from the sensor. You get a rectangle that you can move around the screen with the Multi-controller. When you press the AF-ON button, the Canon 50D focuses and changes the gray rectangle to green. You can zoom in either five or 10 times to confirm focus, the zoom following the AF point. It takes many seconds to focus in this mode, between 2.24 to 7.32 seconds in our testing. A histogram can also be overlaid over the image, though it's a shame that the histogram is still opaque, blocking so much of the image, rather than translucent as other companies have managed.
Live Face mode. We've all seen face detection by now, and if you've seen Canon's face detection on a simpler digital camera, you know about how well it detects faces on the Canon 50D: quite well. Autofocus is a lot slower on the 50D, however, as it has to process a lot more data to judge focus, and move far larger optics than are found in a digicam; but it's not bad. It'll take a few seconds to focus at times, especially when handheld. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower. The system can track far more faces than other systems we've seen at this point, though, at up to 35 forward-looking faces.
If the Canon 50D detects more than one face, it adds two arrows around the frame it's placed around its top-priority face, telling you that you can turn the Quick Command dial to select another face as the priority.
Creative Auto mode. Canon's new exposure mode is called Creative Auto, marked with a "CA" on the silver mode dial. The CA mode is not just for shooting in California or Canada, nor does it have anything to do with chromatic aberration: Instead, it's a cross between the Auto and Program modes. When set to CA mode, the Canon 50D allows the user to adjust the Flash, resolution, drive mode, and Picture Style. Setting aperture and exposure are converted to easier concepts of background blur (blurred or sharp), and exposure level (darker or brighter) with a slider that's adjusted with the Quick Control dial. The more complex exposure decisions remain under automatic control in CA mode. The exposure slider is the more useful, standing in as a more comprehensible EV adjustment. Sometimes the blur or depth-of-field slider isn't available, as when shooting indoors, because the flash is deployed automatically. Turning on the flash brings this control back, though, so it's handy that you can actually disable the flash in a full-auto mode.
DIGIC 4. Dropping the roman numerals from its name, Canon has included their new DIGIC 4 image processor in the EOS 50D. The new processor is said to offer improvements in processing speed, necessary to handle the 15.1-megapixel files while maintaining the 6.3 frames-per-second top speed. The 50D's DIGIC 4 processor also keeps the noise down when compared to the Canon 40D, according to our tests, despite the smaller pixels.
High ISO. While the Canon EOS 40D and its predecessors had an ISO sensitivity range of 100 to 1,600 with the ability to extend this to ISO 3,200, the Canon 50D's ISO ranges from ISO 100 to 3,200 in 1/3 EV increments, and can be extended to ISO 6,400 and 12,800, using the H1 and H2 ISO settings. This step up is in an answer to the Nikon D3 and D700's impressive high-ISO performance. Though the Canon 50D doesn't reach to the astonishing ISO 25,600 available in the latter two cameras, it does reach ISO 12,800 at 15.1 megapixels on a cropped sensor vs. Nikon's full-frame sensor at 12.1 megapixels, an easier (though surely not easy) feat. To see how the Canon 50D does at these extended ISO settings, read the Image Quality section below.
Sensor technology. The Canon 50D's 15.1-megapixel CMOS design raises the resolution significantly from the Canon 40D's 10.1 megapixels. As we've seen with other recent resolution increases in Canon SLR sensors, though, a few changes have been made to the sensor design to keep noise low.
First, the light-sensitive area of each photosite has been increased in size through more efficient cell design. Second, there are also now no gaps between the microlenses that sit over each 4.7µm photosite; Canon calls them "gapless" microlenses. Judging from our test images, Canon has indeed managed to improve image quality while raising ISO and increasing resolution at the same time.
14-bit A/D conversion. Brought over from the 40D, the Canon 50D uses 14-bit Analog-to-Digital conversion when creating JPEGs, for smoother color transitions, and RAW files are saved as 14-bit files. Converting from 14-bits worth of data means that the saved images are theoretically formed from four times the color information than was available to the Canon EOS 30D, which was only able to generate 4,096 colors per channel. The Canon 50D can recognize 16,384 colors per channel, which should mean smoother tones and more accurate color overall. Though JPEGs will still be saved as 8-bit color, RAW images will benefit from the 14-bit depth, making for more accurate 16-bit images in programs like Photoshop. And unlike the Nikon D300, the Canon 50D's frame rate does not slow down when capturing in 14-bit mode, because it has no other mode.
New RAW formats. RAW files can now be recorded at three different resolutions: 3.8, 7.1, or the full 15.1-megapixel resolution of the camera. It isn't currently clear if this will be achieved by pixel binning or averaging multiple pixels, which could have the side effect of reducing noise at the lower resolutions. This option is one favored by those who want the post-processing control offered by RAW capture, but who don't always want to deal with large file sizes. An example is the wedding photographer who knows he won't need a 15-megapixel RAW image for shots that will never be reproduced larger than 5x7.
Frame rate. The Canon 50D offers 6.3 frames per second burst shooting at the camera's full 15.1-megapixel resolution. While the speed is just slightly reduced from the 6.5 frames per second on the 40D, it nonetheless represents a dramatic increase in throughput to the memory card, given the significant increase in sensor resolution. Holding the frame rate steady in the face of a 50% increase in pixel count is quite an accomplishment. The buffer depth is close to unchanged in RAW mode, with the Canon 50D offering 16 shots versus a 17 shot burst-depth for the 40D.
Vignetting correction. In a first for Canon's EOS series, the 50D includes Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction (also known as vignetting correction; vignetting is shading in the corners of an image). This has been available for a while now when shooting RAW files processed through the company's Digital Photo Professional software, but is now available in-camera when shooting JPEG images. The function can be disabled, and works by default with 26 of Canon's most common EF-mount lenses. Data can be stored in the EOS 50D body for up to a maximum of 40 lenses at once, while Digital Photo Pro ships with data for 82 lenses that can be added to the camera via the EOS Utility software as needed. Canon has even gone as far as to include some lens models that are no longer available at retail, a boon for those with old lens collections. The Lens Peripheral Illumination correction function will work for any focal length, f-stop, or focus distance.
Auto Lighting Optimizer. The Auto Lighting Optimizer introduced on the Rebel XSi allows the photographer to expose for the highlights, and then the camera adjusts the image to open up the shadows during image capture. On the Canon 50D, ALO now has four settings, including Off, Low, Medium, or Strong. Though we didn't see much effect from the Auto Lighting Optimizer in our tests on the XSi, the 50D's ALO series above is quite revealing.
AE Bracketing. HDR (High Dynamic Range) shooters have a new tool in the Canon 50D's enhanced AE Bracketing feature. The new feature allows you to bracket images starting from four stops darker or ending four stops brighter than the meter's selected exposure value, over a two-stop range, when combining exposure compensation with AE Bracketing. A new display makes it easier to understand the feature (see animation at left).
AF Sensor. The Canon 50D's AF sensor is a 9-point diamond array, with nine cross-type f/5.6 autofocus points, meaning that they're all sensitive to vertical or horizontal lines. Nestled in the center is an additional precision AF sensor that is arrayed diagonally and used when you mount a lens of f/2.8 or faster. It has the advantage of detecting both horizontal and vertical lines.
Interestingly, the Canon 50D now includes the ability to detect the light source (including the color temperature and whether or not the light is pulsing), and then take these into account and microscopically shift the focus as necessary.
AF Micro-adjustment. The Canon 50D's lens micro-adjustment function allows focus to be fine-tuned for twenty different lenses, negating issues with back- or front-focusing. The adjustment is then stored in the camera body for use whenever the lenses are attached. (Lenses are identified by the combination of focal length and maximum aperture; the camera can't distinguish between multiple lenses of the same aperture and focal length.) Many new SLR photographers assume their lenses will be perfect, but not all lenses are created equal. Each lens can have individual quirks that make them focus slightly in front of or behind the subject, among other variables. It used to be that you had to send your camera and lenses to the factory to have them tuned to your individual body, but with the Canon 50D you can approximate that with the Micro-adjustment feature, nested in the Custom Function III menu.
I sat down with a set of lenses to try out AF Micro-adjustment and got fairly good results, though the process was a little confusing at first. Our test target is an array of AA batteries set in a diagonal line receding away from the camera from left to right. The distance is approximately one battery-width per step. It's not a perfect target for this particular AF array, it seems, as my results at first were random with some lenses, first back-focusing, then front-focusing, regardless of the setting in the Custom Function dialog. But once I got the camera pointed at the right part of the target, it went fairly well.
Of the lenses I mounted and adjusted, the 18-200 needed the least adjustment, a setting of +1. The 85mm f/1.8 needed a setting of -3, the 60mm Macro f/2.8 required -3 as well, and the 28-135mm a setting of -7. The 50mm f/2.8 needed at least a -2 setting, but no setting made a change at all in either direction.
Out of curiosity, I attached the lab's Sigma 70mm Macro f/2.8, and it was spot-on, though the lens data didn't come through correctly, showing an EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro lens instead.
In addition to adjusting for individual lenses, you can choose to adjust all lenses by the same amount, useful if all your lenses are off by a nearly equal amount, suggesting that your camera's AF sensor is out of adjustment.
Create and select folders. Also new to the Canon 50D is the ability to create and select new folders on the loaded memory card. Once a new folder is created, file numbering starts over. You can switch between folders at any time.
New DPP features. A number of new features will come via the included Canon Digital Photo Professional software (DPP), the ability to register a copyright notice into the proper EXIF field in each image. If you want to see which AF points were active when you took your shot, DPP will also show you all active points at the time of exposure. And when opening a RAW image from the Canon Image Browser, the program links directly into DPP rather than going through the old RAW Image Task. DPP offers greater control, while the old Image Task was more like the camera's native conversion.
HDMI output. Also helping catch up with the latest offerings, the Canon 50D includes an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) port, for displaying images on a high-definition television.
Dust reduction. Yet another upgrade is in the Canon 50D's integrated cleaning system. Canon has now applied a fluorine coating to the camera's low-pass filter, which should make it easier for the existing ultrasonic dust removal system to remove sticky or wet particles (the dust removal system vibrates the low-pass filter to shake off dust particles; wet or sticky particles obviously will adhere more firmly to the surface than dry ones would).
Storage and Battery. Images are stored on CompactFlash cards, Type I or II, including Microdrives. One caution I found in the manual is that Canon recommends against using Microdrives when shooting in Live View mode, as the drive's additional heat can combine with the heat generated by the sensor and start to degrade images. Worthy of note for those who still use Microdrives.
The Canon EOS 50D uses the same BP-511A battery that the EOS 20D, 30D, and 40D use, and is compatible with the BP-511 and BP-512. Canon says that the EOS 50D is capable of capturing up to 640 shots when using the optical viewfinder, but only 170 shots when shooting via Live View modes. My experience bears this out, as I'm used to getting several days out of a single battery with the 40D and 50D, but switching to Live View is the fastest way to test the battery meter.
UDMA card support. The new Canon 50D supports even unreleased UDMA cards, up to UDMA-6, capable of transferring up to 133MB per second. The current fastest cards, UDMA-3, handle data transfer rates of up to 45MB per second.
The Canon EOS 50D is capable of shooting 90 Large/Fine JPEG frames in a burst on UDMA-3 cards, or 60 frames on non-UDMA cards; the 40D was estimated to get 75 frames regardless of the card type. There's no improvement with UDMA cards when shooting in RAW mode, suggesting that the bottleneck for RAW shooting lies elsewhere in the imaging pipeline. The 16-shot RAW burst depth applies whether shooting on UDMA or non-UDMA cards, but the buffer took 22 seconds to clear with the Kingston 266x CF card, and only 9 seconds to clear with the SanDisk Ducati 4GB UDMA-3 card.
Accessories. The best news for upgraders is that all the accessories for the 40D are still compatible with the Canon 50D, including the BP-511 and BP-511A batteries, battery grip, wireless grip, and interchangeable focusing screens. The Canon 50D accepts the BG-E2N battery grip that was introduced with the 40D, and uses two BP-511A batteries, or six AA batteries. The pack serves as a vertical grip, with duplication of the controls found on the 50D's main grip.
The Canon WFT-E3A gives the Canon 50D wireless capability in addition to serving as a vertical grip. Compatible with 802.11b and 802.11g, the WFT-E3A can connect via an access point, or direct to a computer, with a range of 492 feet. A variety of transfer and security standards are supported, as well as GPS devices, flash memory keys; and an RJ-45 Ethernet 100 port supports wired transfer as well. The WFT-E3A is also compatible with the 40D.
Kit Lens. Canon is including the 28-135mm IS lens with the 50D. It's an older design, so it doesn't focus quite as fast as the newer 17-85mm EF-S lens, and its image stabilization system isn't as advanced as others, but it's a good general purpose optic made better by the crop factor, which cuts out most corner softness. It also looks and feels great on the larger Canon 50D body, striking a good balance. The only major drawback is the lack of a true wide angle, since 28mm is roughly equal to a 45mm lens on a 35mm camera. Unfortunately, in our testing we found my personal copy to be a little softer than we'd expected, something we weren't able to improve much with the AF Microadjustment feature. We can only conclude that once again, what looked quite good on a 10-megapixel sensor appears softer on the finer-grained 15-megapixel sensor.
Though I prefer to shoot with primes when I can, this lens is a good all-around choice for general photography. If you're looking for better wide-angle coverage, look at the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS, or the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lenses.
Shooting with the Canon 50D
Since I'm quite accustomed to Canon digital SLRs, shooting with the EOS 50D was easy. The camera powers up fast, most of the controls are where I expect them, and quite a few are easier to access thanks to the new Quick menu integrated into the rear Status display. I find myself torn between using the top and rear Status display, which can cause some confusion; but I'm glad to have the choice all the same.
The Canon 50D feels great to hold, though those with smaller hands might think it a bit too big. The textured grip has just the right tack, and the leather texture is repeated on the back and left front for better camera control overall. Many of the major controls are easily accessed with the thumb, including the Multi-controller, AF-On, AE Lock, and AF point selection buttons.
I'm not as crazy about having buttons along the bottom of the LCD, and the silkscreen icons caused a little confusion for me, as I occasionally pressed the Picture Styles button when I meant to press the INFO button.
Switching to Live View is generally a last resort for me, so I don't mind that its activation button isn't available to my right thumb as it was on the 40D.
I appreciate Canon's conservative approach with their semi-pro digital SLR design, which makes it easier to switch from a 20D to a 50D without having to re-learn too much that I've already applied to muscle memory.
The Canon 50D's LCD and all its coatings work quite well. Judging focus onscreen is much better, and sunlight performance is also improved thanks to the new coatings. The viewfinder is also sufficiently bigger that you can better judge focus before you shoot with many lenses, especially primes, whose depth-of-field is usually narrower wide-open.
Timing. One of the main features that keeps me using Canon cameras primarily is the fast autofocus acquisition, especially in their semi-pro and professional digital SLRs. The Canon 50D scored an impressive single-point AF lag time of 0.131 second, and auto-area AF wasn't much slower, as 0.174 second. Prefocused, the Canon 50D managed a very impressive 0.063 second lag time.
AF point selection is also very quick. I usually shoot with just the center point for its greater accuracy with a wider variety of lenses. The mirror and shutter are nicely damped for a softer sound, without any perceptible winding sounds, as you'll hear from past models, including the Canon Rebel XSi and 30D. It's a better experience overall, and mirror blackout time is pretty quick, great for keeping your eye on the ball.
With the 18-200. I took the 50D on my usual walk around town, but was also fortunate to visit a local airshow on a recent weekend for some variety. I took the new 18-200mm lens, hoping to demonstrate its suitability to such a venue. Indeed, it was ideal for grabbing wide-angle shots of large airplanes, and zooming in to interesting features without having to move or approach the plane. Switching between shots of the kids touring the airplanes on the ground and shots of aircraft soaring overhead was also easy and natural.
Though it's equivalent to a 320mm lens on a 35mm camera, the 200mm setting doesn't always get as close as I'd like. Much of my disappointment stems from the fact that I wasn't actually close to the airstrip when I made many of my early shots; it's easy to underestimate distances at an airshow. And though it was a beautiful Fall day, the Sun was low in the sky, streaming straight into the un-hooded lens, putting most of the airplanes in shadow, while washing out much of the contrast. So while I got no award winners, I think I'll be able to Photoshop some of them into good decorations for my kids' rooms.
I also shot with the 70-200mm f/4 zoom lens, and as I looked through the images I shot of planes in the air, I mostly chose the images I took with this lens more than those of the 18-200mm. The 70-200mm is not only of generally higher image quality than the 18-200mm, it comes with a large hood that helps improve contrast. Though I have more than one hood with a 72mm opening, I was frustrated to find that none of them would fit the 18-200mm. Regardless, the short, petal-type hood necessary to keep the lens from vignetting at 18mm would have helped very little when compared to the large cup that comes with the EF 70-200mm f/4.
I'd only hold up the static display shots as decent examples of what the 50D can do, except for one shot of the two Thunderbirds doing a near-miss pass in front of the audience. Though it was largely up to chance that I caught the very tense moment at its apex, the Canon 50D's 6.3fps continuous speed is what made it more likely. The frames before and after this shot contain only the jet in the center, which I was following.
Image stabilization with the 18-200mm is remarkable. When we tested it in the SLRgear.com Lab, one of the techs, Rob, noticed that if you hold the shutter down for a second or so, the IS system seems to home in on your frequency and becomes quite solid, noticeably more so than the normal floating image you're presented with at first, which is more common on older IS lenses. When he waited that extra bit, his stabilization numbers went way up. I was impressed with some of the shots I got as well at surprisingly low shutter speeds, most of them without that signature IS smudge I see so often from my 28-135mm lens at lower shutter speeds.
On the downside, the EF-S 18-200 doesn't have a focus scale on the lens, while the 28-135 IS does, and of course it's incompatible with full-frame digital SLRs, as it's designed only for APS-C cameras, while the 28-135 is a full-frame lens. As always with SLR lenses, you'll get better image quality with a wide zoom and a tele zoom to cover a given range than with one that covers the whole range, but there's something to be said for the convenience of a lens like the 18-200mm.
Vignetting with 18-200. One problem that I encountered with the 18-200mm was the severe vignetting it exhibited at 200mm. Apparently I had the vignetting correction on in my airshow images, but a shot I fired at a passing airplane a few days later reveals how the lens performs without the correction enabled. It's not just vignetting, but includes a halo around the middle that's unusual. The amount of vignetting at 200mm changes with the focus, getting worse toward infinity; it's a change you can see in the viewfinder.
With the 28-135. This is a lens I'm quite comfortable with, but images are indeed softer with the 28-135mm, as our test shots bear out. Though I use this lens frequently for candid shots at events and family snapshots, its roughly 45-216mm equivalent focal length makes it harder to get group shots or indoor photos. I stand by my statement that it's a good lens that's well-built, and a good first choice, especially if you like shooting candids, but there's no question that its images from the Canon 50D appear softer when viewed at 100 percent onscreen than they do from the 10-megapixel Canon 40D or 8-megapixel 30D.
Big files. The Canon 50D's 15-megapixel file sizes were large enough that I decided to shoot only JPEG images at the airshow, since I'd only brought the 4GB Ducati card. I knew I'd be shooting a lot in continuous mode, and the available image count goes from 698 to 143 when switching from Large Fine JPEG to RAW + Large Fine JPEG. Large Fine JPEGs average 5.6MB, while full-size RAWs average 23.3MB. The day has finally come when a 4GB card seems small. Invest in hard drive manufacturers, and hold back a little cash to buy a few terabyte drives yourself if you plan to shoot a lot with the Canon 50D.
Canon 50D Image Quality
Since the beginning of Canon's digital SLR line, it's the image quality that has stood out. Lately Nikon has made impressive leaps to take over the lead in the noise vs. detail aspect of image quality, but the Canon 50D's new 15.1-megapixel sensor makes up some lost ground.
|Canon 50D vs Canon 40D at ISO 3,200|
|Canon 50D||Canon 40D|
|Canon 50D vs Nikon D90 at 3,200|
|Canon 50D (15.1 megapixels)||Nikon D90 (12.3 megapixels)|
High ISO. Getting hand-holdable shots indoors and at night is the holy grail of photography for a great many of us. From consumers to pros, we want our cameras to capture the interesting light we see with our eyes. Consumers especially don't care why it's difficult to do so with digital cameras, they just want the shot. Enthusiasts and pros know why it's harder, but few carry tripods to stabilize their cameras for slow shutter speeds. Instead they invest in fast lenses and image-stabilized cameras and optics. What's been missing is faster sensors, and now camera companies are working to meet that need. Canon's 50D does well enough in most situations that you can feel safe shooting at up to ISO 800 with little loss to image detail, even when printing at 13x19 inches; ISOs below that can withstand printing up to 20x30 inches. At ISO 1,600 detail is still good, but 13x19 is probably the upper limit thanks to noise and softening due to suppression.
Those are some pretty large print sizes.
ISO 3,200 shots are still pretty decent at 8x10, with little chroma noise, but ISO 6,400 shots start to get a little grainy, and banding starts to show up in the shadows; when shadows make up a large part of the image, banding is severe. At ISO 12,800, noise gets worse, with yellow and purple blotches, as well as noticeable hot and dark, and sometimes bright red pixels scattered among the noise. Only when you set the noise suppression to high are these images usable at 5x7-inch sizes, and even then you have to forgive the banding and blotchiness. Depending on what you shoot, you might not notice the grain, and if you shoot raw and process the images with a good noise suppression program, you might come out with more usable images, but for the most part I suggest steering clear of ISO 12,800.
The Canon 50D almost achieves parity with the Nikon D90 and D300 at ISO 6,400 when noise suppression is set to high, but falls short of the mark. Of course, some of that is due to the smaller pixels on this sensor when compared to the 12.3-megapixel sensor in the Nikons.
Naturally, the Nikon D700 does better at ISO 12,800. We're comparing apples to watermelons at this point, since the D700 is a 12.1-megapixel full-frame sensor, with much larger pixels, but if you're looking for a superb low-light camera, you might want to consider the D700 (we have not seen samples from the Canon 5D Mark II as of late October, so we can't say how it will compare to the D700 at its highest ISO settings).
The Canon 50D delivers high enough quality from ISO 100 to 3,200, though, that most users will just be impressed. Shooting indoors with a reasonable shutter speed is usually achieved at ISO 1,600 or 3,200, so there's still room to play, especially if you have a faster lens.
|Before and after firmware update|
Full AF Shutter lag
Canon 18-200mm wide
Canon 18-300mm tele
Canon 17-85mm wide
Canon 17-85mm tele
Canon 28-135mm wide
Canon 28-135mm tele
Canon 24-105mm wide
Canon 24-105mm wide
Canon 85mm f/1.8
Firmware update. Just before we completed this review, Canon came out with a firmware update to address a few issues, most important of which was the solution to the Error 99 problem that many users have experienced, where the lens stops working. We have no official word from Canon on what causes the error, just an assumption that some trouble with the gold contacts inside the lens need cleaning on occasion.
There was some concern expressed in online forums that the solution might slow the lenses down to compensate for the poor connection between the lens and body. So we retested several lenses that we have here for autofocusing speed, and most actually came out faster with the new firmware 1.0.3 than with the older firmware 1.0.2; but the differences are statistically insignificant.
Note that we have not experienced an Error 99 code on our 50D sample, and we've tried it with at least eight different lenses, old and new.
Analysis. Canon's latest enthusiast digital SLR camera may have come early, but it's just in time for the current rapidly moving SLR market, and it's also in time for the holidays. Had they come out with a 12-megapixel model, it would have felt like the 40D all over again. Though we don't think megapixels are the end-all of digital camera design, Canon fell behind in both resolution and high ISO performance with the 40D, good as it was. The Canon 50D puts them back in contention for the high-resolution, high quality image crown. Unfortunately, the Canon 50D's high ISO performance isn't quite what we expected, but at least ISO 3,200 is now quite usable, as are all ISOs below that. Everyone should feel pretty comfortable shooting at ISO 800 and 1,600 without much worry about significant loss of image quality, since these can be printed at up to 13x19 inches and still look nice.
Its high frame rate, 14-bit A/D conversion, high-resolution LCD, and high-ISO are the Canon 50D's most important features, with the high-resolution sensor coming in behind that. The 50D's compatibility with older accessories is a plus for those already invested in the line, and all the new features come in thanks to a very competitive market. That's great for intermediate and pro photographers on a budget, because many of Canon's professional features have trickled down from the 1D-series cameras.
So while the 40D is great, and will remain in the market, the Canon 50D incorporates plenty of enhancements worth the couple-hundred extra bucks. The Canon 50D is an excellent digital SLR.
Canon EOS 50D Basic Features
- 15.1-megapixel APS-C-sized CMOS sensor with gapless microlenses
- 6.3 frames per second
- 3.0-inch LCD with 920,000 pixels
- Top Status LCD
- ISO range from 100 to 12,800
- Shutter speeds 30 seconds to 1/8,000
- Compact Flash Type I and II UDMA slots
- Lithium-ion battery
- 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 inches (146 x 108 x 74mm)
- 1.81 pounds (822g) with battery and card, but no lens
Canon EOS 50D Special Features
- DIGIC 4 offers faster processing
- 14-bit A/D conversion
- New menu look
- Live View with contrast detect AF option
- Face detection autofocus in Live View mode
- Silent shutter mode in Live View for wildlife shooting
- Dedicated Live View button
- Peripheral Illumination (vignetting) Correction
- Highlight Tone Priority mode
- Automatic Lighting Optimizer with multiple levels
- New Creative Auto exposure mode gives beginning users more control over background blur and motion blur without having to understand aperture or shutter speed
- Three RAW modes: RAW (15.1 megapixels), sRAW1 (7.1 megapixels), and sRAW2 (3.8 megapixels)
- RAW modes available in Scene and full-auto modes as well as Creative Zone modes
- EOS Integrated Cleaning System for three-phase dust control, removal, and subsequent deletion
- Lens AF microadjustment function
- Center AF point offers enhanced accuracy along both axes with lenses f/2.8 or faster
- Scratch-resistant, anti-glare LCD coating
- Capable of bursts of up to 90 Large/Fine JPEGs or 16 RAW images on a UDMA CF card
- Multiple levels of noise reduction: Standard/Weak/Strong/None
- HDMI output allows display of camera images on HD televisions
- UDMA support
- Nine cross-type AF sensors
- Pentaprism with 0.95x magnification
- Mode dial has two Custom modes
- My Menu for quick access to common settings
- Interchangeable focusing screens
- Raw translation software included
In the Box
- Canon EOS 50D body
- Body cap (plus front and back lens caps if kit is purchased)
- Camera strap EW-EOS50D
- Battery Charger CG-580
- Battery Pack BP-511A
- USB cable IFC-200U
- Video cable VC-100
- Software CD with Digital Photo Professional for RAW conversion
- Manuals, registration card
- Large capacity CompactFlash memory card. These days, 4GB and 8GB cards are inexpensive enough
- Camera case for protection
- Accessory lenses
Canon EOS 50D Conclusion
Canon's EOS 50D sticks with the conservative pattern that the company has established for their semi-pro digital SLR in terms of physical design, but now it also includes most of Canon's cutting-edge digital SLR technology. Where this line usually leads is in image quality for a reasonable price, and Canon has also worked to improve that aspect, which is really core to why loyal customers keep coming back.
While the highest ISO settings didn't meet our hopes and expectations to rise and compete favorably with the Nikon D300 and Nikon D700, it's not really a surprise. The higher resolution at the APS-C size was unlikely to compete with the Nikon D700's full-frame sensor. And that the D300 at 12.3 megapixels outperforms the 15.1-megapixel Canon 50D at ISO 6,400 also makes sense: the pixels are smaller on the Canon, so they collect less light. Canon's extended ISOs always include some compromise. There's nothing wrong with hoping, but the expectations did bring disappointment when both 6,400 and 12,800 produced noticeable banding.
The story, though, is in the Canon 50D's standard ISO range. Images from ISO 100 to 3,200 are quite usable at a wide range of sizes. I was happy with printed ISO 800 shots up to 13x19, and shots even at 3,200 produce good quality 8x10-inch prints. That's what Canon intermediate fans rely on: JPEG and RAW images that they can believe in, time after time.
Camera operation has improved with the Canon 50D as well, with easier navigation, and a choice of how you want to interface with the camera, via the top Status display or the rear one. I miss the infrared detectors that dim the rear LCD at night on the Rebel XSi, as it's easy to lose your night vision by raising the 50D to your eye with the Info display on. You can turn it off, but then you lose the utility of the rear LCD.
The latest Live View mode enhancements are also present in the Canon 50D, including some important features that are missing in other models. Actual focus indication after focusing in Live View Quick mode (phase detect) should never have been omitted from the other models, including the Rebel XSi, but at least it's finally here for the 50D. Contrast detect Autofocus is also enhanced with face detection, a feature that can track up to 35 faces. It's a more complete Live View package, and it's all adjustable under one Live View function settings menu item.
The Canon 50D's new Creative Auto mode introduces a new way to interface with the camera that new users might appreciate. Most enthusiast photographers won't need the new mode, but its basic philosophy is more like a point-and-shoot digital camera, with simple onscreen access to a few basic functions. It went mostly unused for my shooting, except when I wanted to have the flash up for AF-assist, but didn't want it to fire. That's actually easier to do in CA mode, while in Creative modes (PASM), you have to navigate to the Flash Control menu and disable Flash firing.
Improvements to features like Automatic Lighting Optimizer and Noise Reduction are welcome, and innovative capture methods brought over from the Canon 40D, like silent shutter mode, 14-bit A/D conversion, and the ability to capture 6.3 frames per second keep the Canon 50D a cutting-edge photographic tool.
Excellent low-light performance, impressive printed output, very fast shutter lag times, solid build, superb customization, and excellent image quality all add up to make the Canon EOS 50D a great choice for all types of photographers, and a sure Dave's Pick.